Rajdeep Sardesai: Virat Kohli can decide who the coach of the team will be, Mahendra Singh Dhoni can probably decide when he wants to retire. Maybe Dhoni should give up T20 cricket but the fact is no one has dared tell Dhoni, ‘Your time is up’.
Rahul Dravid: Don’t be critical of just Virat and Dhoni, even Ashish Nehra is getting to decide when he will retire!
In an extremely engaging interaction during the Bangalore Literature Festival on Sunday, that was still the mic drop moment of the event for me. Dravid was clearly joking, but even when he’s being facetious, he doesn’t generally skip out of the safety of the politically correct crease in this manner.
Ever since Nehra announced that the Delhi T20I against New Zealand would be his last, sharp divisions of opinion have emerged. One holds that it’s preposterous that a player gets to decide which his retirement match will be because the question of picking on merit is booted out of the window which is then slammed shut. The other holds that for stalwart players, relaxing the meritocracy rule during a farewell is acceptable.
We will know today which side of the divide Kohli and Ravi Shastri stand on, if Nehra is picked in the XI for India’s first T20I against New Zealand. He’s announced that this will be his last match. Will the final bow be taken on the field, or from the dugout?
Where should it be taken?
A staged farewell is sort of anathema to team sport, or at least to the ideal of team sport as meritocratic. If you have earned your place in the team and then you decide to retire, that’s one thing. But if you decide to retire and earn your place on the team because of that… well, let’s just say not too many journeys are completed when carts are put before horses.
Again, it depends on whether you are actually going somewhere. There is already a prevalent worldwide view that Twenty20 Internationals don’t mean much outside of the World T20s. In that same Literature Festival but in a different session, Gideon Haigh and Suresh Menon were having a delightful chat – for themselves probably and the audience certainly – as you tend to do when two of the finest cricket writers get together, and Haigh remarked on the slightly futile aspect of bilateral T20Is, saying no one really cared which team was ranked No. 1 or which players were.
And it’s not just cricket writers who think that. Ian Bishop felt the same too. If all cricket’s a stage, then bilateral T20Is are part of the trees painted in the backdrop.
Would a stage-managed farewell be quite so terrible in T20Is then? In my book, not. If the match itself is of limited value – and you would struggle to find a game that really matters outside of the World T20 – then somehow subverting natural sporting hierarchy doesn’t seem as heretical.
You could probably extend this argument to One-Day Internationals as well. Yes, the rankings carry greater weight in audiences’ minds for ODIs, and there is a flipside to slipping in the rankings if you fail to qualify for a world event like the Champions Trophy or the World Cup, like Windies did this year. But it is not all-pervasive. An India or South Africa for example, sitting at the top of the tree, won’t really be affected by the odd loss in the manner a Windies or even Sri Lanka would.
So even in ODIs – as long as it’s part of a bilateral series and not a world event – you can accept some tweaking in the XI if it is for a farewell. If it happens to be in a dead rubber ODI, so much the better. The exception would be the multi-nation world events. If you can’t command a place in the XI on the strength of your performance, then you can’t bow out on the field in a world tournament.
In a Test match though, is where I would draw the line.
Haigh also spoke of how Test cricket demands more of an investment from its watchers. In time, in nuance, in richness of tapestry. When a sport demands that, then for those who put in that investment, it becomes that much more sacred. That might explain why Test cricket lovers keep the flag of the longest format flying high, why it continues to survive despite repeated pronouncements of its death, and also why there are fewer Test cricket lovers than T20 watchers. Putting in that investment does not come easily or naturally.
You can’t have a farewell Test. Or you shouldn’t at any rate. Because you can, as Sachin Tendulkar’s exit showed. That series against West Indies, as they were still called then, wasn’t the greatest exhibition of Test cricket. There wasn’t a dry eye among anyone present or watching on the final day, but that was entirely because of the remarkable career that was being celebrated than due to any great contest ending.
But the T20 match has the one thing going for it that Test cricket doesn’t: what Haigh called ‘immemorability’. It’s much easier to forget afterwards, just like it’s much easier to casually watch it. If that format is being used to bid farewell by a player who has given up considerable amounts to be on the park, as a dozen surgeries tell you, then it’s perfectly fine by me.
Go well Nehra ji. I hope you get picked in the XI. And make this T20I at least, more memorable than its brethren.